A publication of Appalachian Voices


A publication of Appalachian Voices

Hiking the Highlands

The New River

By Matt Wasson
“Hey Jeffrey, take a look at that water – is it fishable?” asked Judson, not taking his eyes off the narrow, winding and fog-covered road ahead.

“Looks a little dingy, but it’s not a mud ball,” answered Jeffrey.

“I’m not happy with it yet.”

At 7:00 am, somewhere along the New River near the Virginia-North Carolina border we were finally starting to pull ahead of the chocolate-milk colored water coming down from the high country. Just 8 hours earlier, I had received the call from Jeffrey that the trip would be a go, despite the influx of mud from recent rains.

“Judson thinks we can outrun the mud if we go further downstream,” he’d said.

Jeffrey Scott, a devoted fisherman and the improbably young-looking executive director of the National Committee for the New River (NCNR) is not one to cancel a fishing trip lightly – particularly not one on the very river he has worked so hard to protect. At 33 years old, Jeffrey has been at the helm of one of the largest and oldest conservation organizations in western North Carolina for nearly five years, and he talks about his work protecting the New River with authority and the wisdom of experience. He also talks about his current $13 million fundraising campaign without blinking an eye.

As luck would have it, the very “mudball” we were trying to outrun was a perfect illustration of the challenge faced by the National Committee for the New River (NCNR). Erosion of stream banks from hundreds of miles of tributaries throughout the mountains poses the primary threat to the health of the New River and its fish populations – particularly that of small-mouth bass, the most popular sports fish on the river. The thing is, nearly all of that land through which the river and its tributaries run is privately owned and divided into many thousands of individual holdings. With very few laws protecting streams on private property in North Carolina or Virginia, preventing major erosion and sedimentation events like we were witnessing every time it rains will take education and cooperation of landowners on a massive scale.

But Jeffrey likes working with these landowners and he is clearly more comfortable promoting voluntary cooperative efforts rather than mandatory regulations. And he is undaunted by the scale of the task at hand.

“There’s no book on how to protect a river,” he mentioned several times in the car. “You do what you can, but what’s important is that you need communities to get involved.”

His organization specializes in doing just that and has already protected more than 2000 acres and more than 35 linear miles of riverfront along the New River and its tributaries since 1991.

At the moment, however, we were frankly more concerned about the threat this particular “mudball” posed to our fishing trip. Thus, it was with some relief that another half hour of driving downstream found us looking out across a beautiful clear-running river somewhere near Galax, Virginia.

“Near Galax” is the location we agree on to use for this story, since Judson, the owner of a guide service, is quite serious about protecting his trade secrets – favorite fishing spots and hard-to-find boat launches. He is one of the few to guide fishing trips on the New River, and has never run into another charter boat while guiding trips there. He would just as soon keep it that way.

“Half of the fishing experience is finding that kind of solitude,” says Judson, “which is something a good guide service can offer.”
It is obvious that Judson has – to put it mildly – a passion for fishing, which is what makes him an excellent guide and has made his business, Elk Creek Outfitters, in Boone, NC, a successful start-up in a competitive market.

“You know what I like to do on my day off?” asks Judson. “I like to go fishing.”

But Judson is in it for more than the fishing and he plays the role of guide perfectly. He has plenty of experience guiding not just fishing trips in the Southeast, but flyfishing trips in the West, elk hunting trips in Alaska, and much more. Not only does Judson guide well, he has the appearance and demeanor of a genuine American pioneer. While author Elizabeth Gilbert titled her book about Judson’s brother, Eustace Conway, “The Last American Man,” it’s clear that Judson would be worthy to share that title. But Judson is no shallow Marlboro-man, and he talks about his family and his business as much as he talks about hunting and fishing.
Judson’s business depends entirely on the continued health and beauty of the New River, and he knows it. It’s why he is such a big supporter of the National Committee for the New River. He is one who can speak first-hand about the enormous economic stake communities have in protecting their waterways.

The Watery Heart of Appalachia

Finally, we launched our 3-seat rubber raft at a low-water bridge and paddled out into the new river just as a dense fog began to lift and the sun came out to reveal a beautiful rocky river with banks covered in late summer wildflowers. Mats of small beetles – “water boatmen is what I’ve heard them called,” said Judson – swirled around in spiral motions on the surface of the water, while sandpipers foraged on the banks and a belted kingfisher made predatory forays out over the water.
Aside from its excellent sports-fishing potential, the New River has many other notable traits. Perhaps most famously, the New River is actually the oldest river in North America, having formed prior even to the uplift of the Appalachian Mountains nearly 500 million years ago.

A drop of water falling off a rhododendron leaf into the headwaters will take an average 110 days to reach the ocean at the mouth of the Mississippi and the Gulf of Mexico. Along the way are many natural marvels, such as ancient limestone cliffs with 1000 year-old cedar trees, enormous deep swimming holes, and some of the nation’s most famous whitewater. The river is home to beloved recreational meccas, such as West Virginia’s New River Gorge, as well as lesser-known regional treasures, including a stretch of the New River in Virginia leading up to the West Virginia border that has been proposed for protection as a Wild and Scenic River.
But there’s something else important about the New River – it, like the Blue Ridge Mountains themselves, forms the very heart of Appalachia. Running from Snake Mountain, just miles from the border with east Tennessee, the New runs through what was once North Carolina’s “lost province,” and eventually down through the Virginian and West Virginian coalfields, emptying into the Kanawha River near Charleston, WV.
The North Carolina and southwest Virginia sections of the New River have some of the best small-mouth bass fishing in the region because it is relatively clean (there is very little industrial development upstream); it is cold, staying consistently below the critical level of 75 degrees; and because it is rocky enough to provide excellent feeding habitat for bass.

Catching small-mouth bass, of course, was precisely the business at hand, and as we paddled out, Jeffrey explained a little about their biology and how understanding that biology is relevant for a good bass fisherman.
“Small mouth are some of the fiercest predators in the river,” said Jeffrey. “They’re ambush predators and often wait in calm areas behind rocks for prey to come passing through in the current.”

“You want to drop your bait in those glassy areas behind the rocks and between the eddies – that’s how you catch small-mouth.”

It quickly became apparent that Jeffrey knows what he’s talking about (or that his bright red frenzy was better bait than my grub or Judson’s fluke) as he pulled in a bass on his third cast and three more, including a beautiful 14-inch specimen, in the first 30 minutes of fishing.

But while Jeffrey was pulling in bass like a pro, it was Judson’s experienced technique that was most eye-catching. With each artful and effortless twitch of the wrist, Judson placed his lure within inches of a rock 20 yards off. That masterful technique finally paid off as, with a whoop of delight and his rod bent almost double, he hooked what was clearly going to be the catch of the day. Reeling in quickly, with a predatory fervor in his eyes, Judson suddenly let loose with a stream of epithets as the catch of the day – and our photo op – swam safely away across the river. While we were fishing catch-and-release anyway, and losing fish is the inevitable consequence of using barbless hooks, Judson’s disappointment was clear, mostly due to the lost photo op for the newspaper. But I’m here to tell you, folks – the one that got away was really that big.

After two more hours of fishing yielded a half dozen more small bass and a chub, we decide to call it a day and begin the hour-long paddle downstream to where Judson’s vehicle was parked. To the peaceful splash of the oars, we lean back and discuss the monumental task of protecting and restoring this mighty river.

A Monumental Task

According to Jeffrey, the quality of water in a river is a direct reflection of what’s happening on the land. Good land management yields a healthy river and he says that the threats to the New River arise mostly from development, road building, and agriculture. He is quick to emphasize, though, that each of these factors are a big problem only when they are done carelessly. He believes we are making the best progress in the area of agriculture, as more and more farmers are agreeing to take voluntary steps to decrease erosion of their stream banks. It’s when the discussion turns to development that even Jeffrey can sound a little glum.

“We are in danger of loving this river to death; of killing the goose that laid the golden egg,” said Jeffrey. “What was once called the lost province is no longer the lost province – there are four-lane highways coming into western NC from all directions.” He believes that the key, as cliché as it may sound, is finding that balance between development and conservation. But he knows all too well that it’s not obvious just where that balance lies.

“Who’s done a study on what happens when you put 50,000 septic tanks in a flood plain?” asks Jeffrey. “The law says they can be as close as 50 feet to the river.”

Jeffrey is adamant that our greatest need is to shift our thinking as a society and begin treating our rivers as the irreplaceable resources that they are. “Waterways are ‘green infrastructure’,” said Jeffrey. “Just like roads, sewers and the electric grid, they are important components of communities and the landscape that we need to invest in.”

When asked what concerned people can do to help, Jeffrey has no hesitation in answering. “People need to get involved. They need to turn off their televisions, get out of the house and go to a meeting. Or better yet, get out there and fish and enjoy the river – that’s how people really start to care about their natural resources.”

The National Committee for the New River holds regular meetings and educational events, and has also set up citizen groups in a number of watersheds to make it easier for people to get involved.

But while Jeffrey sees individual and community involvement as the key to protecting the river, he’s very conscious that there are no easy answers or quick fixes.

“You can never ‘save’ a river,” said Jeffrey. “We will need to keep watching and working forever. It requires eternal vigilance.”

NCNR’s website is at www.ncnr.org.
More information on Elk Creek Outfitters is available at www.ecoflyfishing.com

The National Committee for the New River’s
Five-year River Protection Plan:

In April of 2004, NCNR unveiled a five-year Plan to protect and restore the New River. The River Protection Plan has four major goals for the next five years:

1. To protect 5,000 acres of significant lands;
2. To restore 50 miles of eroding stream banks, wetlands, and aquatic habitats;
3. To increase citizens’ capacity to defend and protect the watershed; and
4. To increase community awareness of critical issues affecting the watershed.

Of the $13 million needed to meet these goals, NCNR has already raised $600,000 from individuals, businesses, and foundations to support the River Protection Plan. They have also been awarded $750,000 from the NC Clean Water Management Trust Fund for land protection and stream bank restoration projects.

To learn more about or contribute to NCNR’s River Protection Plan, contact:
P.O. Box 1480 West Jefferson, NC 28694
336-246-4871 www.ncnr.org

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